States That Prioritized Access to Water at Height of Pandemic Saved Lives

Water shutoffs for non-payment are a constant threat for millions of Americans in any given year. That risk was a deadly one during the pandemic, with access to clean water for handwashing and sanitation a proven way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The dozens of states that implemented moratoria on water shutoffs to protect vulnerable citizens resulted in improved public health outcomes, according to a new Cornell study.

Since March 2020, 34 states have limited water shutoffs during the pandemic, and 20 of these states have imposed comprehensive moratoria that apply to all water systems. The analysis of publicly reported infection growth and reported deaths from April to December of 2020 shows that those states significantly lowered the COVID-19 infection daily growth rate, according to lead author Mildred E. Warner, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’97, a professor of city and regional planning in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and professor of global development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Access to water is absolutely critical during the pandemic,” said Warner, a Faculty Fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “This study shows the importance of a national standard for access to water, especially for low-income households. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed so many structural inequities in our society, and access to drinking water is one that demands our attention.”

According to the research, water and sewer expenses are growing for U.S. households at a rate faster than inflation.

“What we find is that everyone needs access to clean water to stay safe from disease spread,” Warner said, “but increasing costs make affordability a barrier to public health and heighten risks to individuals and families.”

The research points to the potential for better data collection and reporting to help inform policy and solutions at federal, state, and local levels. “Our model uses more than twelve thousand data points to capture the relationship between days when a state had a moratorium in place and the level of COVID-19 infection and deaths,” said paper co-author Xue Zhang, postdoctoral associate in the Departments of City and Regional Planning and Global Development. “Using modeling typical of other public health studies, we find states with moratoria had lower infection and death growth rates. We hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with Food and Water Watch, with support from a Rapid Response Fund award by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and funding from the Cornell Center for Social Sciences.

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